22 October 2019


There is an intriguing news story going around.

Here in Oxford, in what we used to call the Library of the Ashmolean but now call the Sackler since its magnificent rebuild, they store thousands of papayri, some published, many unpublished. These were dug up in a 2000-year-old rubbish dump at Oxyrhynchus in Egypt back in the 1890s by a couple called Grenfell anf Hunt. (Dry sand preserves papyrus.) They are the property of 'The Egypt Exploration Society'. These papyri range from literary texts lost since the fall of Constantinople to laundry lists.

Among them are some OT and NT fragments. And some of these, missing from the Sackler, appear now to be held by an American Evangelical 'Museum of the Bible' financed by a family called Green. (They have very promptly said that they will return anything to which they do not have title.)

The name of an Oxford American papyrologist called Dirk Obbink has cropped up.

What our media do not seem to be aware of is that Obbink has been in the news in a variety of contexts. One of these concerns the Aeolian poetess Sappho of Lesbos.

Most of her oeuvre is lost, the last copies having very probably been destroyed during the spread of Islamic enlightenment. A few pieces survived because they were quoted by other writers. But in the last century quite a few papyrus fragments have been identified and published. One such substantial and quite 'recent' fragment was unofficially named "the New Sappho". Obbink has been in the Sappho Industry from an early stage. And when an "Even Newer Sappho" was published by him, much interest was aroused.

There were some nasty-minded people who even wondered if this might be a forgery ... a suspicion definitively disproved. Interest then turned to 'provenance'. Then there were those who felt that Obbink had given an unsatisfactorily laconic account of where he got it from. It transpired that the Green Museum somehow came somewhere into the story. Nobody has suggested that the Greens have behaved with anything other than complete propriety from beginning to end.

In publishing this text, Obbink, in his understated American way [might he be a relative of Max Beerbohm's Oover?], secured blessed immortality by giving it the title "Papyrus Obbink".

The University is "investigating". Inspector Morse has not been called in. Who needs plods when you have dons?

Why might readers of this humble blog have any interest in such a subject? Because Sappho either invented, or somehow found her name attached to, a metre called the Sapphic. Users of a Breviary will know this metre extremely well because of the hymn Iste Confessor, which crops up with great regularity whenever ... as we so often do in the Western Rites ... we celebrate yet another 'Confessor'. Dragged from Greek into Latin poetry by Catullus and Horace, the 'Sapphic Metre' has for centuries been popular among those composing Latin verse, including hymns. I used it in my recent Latin hymn to S John Henry, Salve Fundator.

In English translations, it springs up at you from the pages of your hymn book because it has three longish lines and then a very short one with the rhythm tumtitty tumtum. [Exempli gratia: Wherefore O Father, we thy humble servants; Lord of our life and God of our salvation ...]


Scribe said...

"Who needs plods when you have dons?" If you watch "Lewis" on TV, you can have both. This is the delightful series where someone can go through the door of the Indian Institute and find himself in Merton College hall.

Oliver Nicholson said...

A case for Professor Fen

Lazarus Gethsemane said...

Can anybody explain WHAT I just read here?

Fr John Hunwicke said...

Dear mr Gethsemane

No,you won't understand it if you just speedread while scrolling down rapidly because you're in a hurry to get on to the next part of the Internet you want to visit.

I don't see why you can't just read it slowly. Why should anybody else waste their time explainig to you what you could perfectly easily take the time to read yourself?

Josephus Muris Saliensis said...

Might we be honoured, that we may in turn honour the new Oxford Saint, with a copy of "Salve Fundator"?

Neil Addison said...

Surely a 'laconic' remark is the only appropriate way of talking about documents in ancient Greek

Colin Spinks said...

Dear Mr Gethsamane,

There once was a poet called Sappho,
Whose work was unearthed by Prof Obbo,
Some said he mistook it,
Then alleged that he took it,
But Hunwicke says it's quite apropos
('cos many of our hymns are in Sapphic meter...)

Oliver Nicholson said...

Here is a formal report, lacking Father's sparkle and wit, but perhaps comprehensible to Mr. Gethsemane:

John Vasc said...

As an Old Oxyrinchan I feel duty-bound to point out that when spelt backwards, 'Obbink' becomes the more ubiquitously notorious word 'Knibbo', cognate with the 'Kibbo' of 'Kibbo Kift'- the woodcraft folk who inherited their knowledge from the ancients.

The word 'Knibbo' is originally derived from an Ancient Egyptian hieroglyph meaning 'Restricted to the avian population' - or as we might put it colloquially, 'strictly for the birds'.

Coincidence?? I think not.

Hans Georg Lundahl said...

Iste Confessor?

What happened to Ut queant laxis?